Banning Islamophobia: Blasphemy Law by the Backdoor

Tim Dieppe, Head of Public Policy at Christian Concern, has written for us about why any attempt to define ‘Islamophobia’ and punish those responsible for it, whether by cancelling them or changing the law to make ‘Islamophobia’ a ‘hate crime’, would have a chilling effect on free speech.

The FSU recently published Banning Islamophobia: Blasphemy Law by the Backdoor, a research briefing by Tim Dieppe, and we’re pleased to say that it has since gained significant media traction (European Conservative, Jewish Chronicle, Spiked, Spiked).

You can read the briefing here.

Tim Dieppe, Head of Public Policy at Christian Concern, believes that any attempt to define ‘Islamophobia’ and punish those responsible for it, whether by cancelling them or changing the law to make ‘Islamophobia’ a ‘hate crime’, would have a chilling effect on free speech, criminalising historians, silencing critics of Islamism, and shutting down the last vestiges of open discussion about Islam, integration and multiculturalism.

That’s particularly true of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition, which was published in 2018 and quickly adopted by institutions including the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Scottish Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Greens, as well as one in seven local authorities in England.

According to this definition, ‘Islamophobia’ is “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

As Tim points out for Spiked, one of the many problems with the APPG’s definition is that its key terms – ‘Islam’ ‘Muslimness’ and ‘perceived Muslimness’ – are never explicitly defined, which means that “it can be invoked to shut down legitimate criticism of Islam as a religion, not just unacceptable prejudice towards Muslim people”.

For instance, is the definition’s reference to ‘Islam’ intended to suggest ‘religion and religious practices’, which should never be protected from criticism or even insult, or the people who perform those practices? And what about the term ‘Muslimness’ – is this targeting anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry against Muslims alone, or might it also be used to demonise critical commentary about ‘Muslim practices and beliefs’ in general?

It is because of these ambiguities, Tim says, that a “well-meaning effort to protect Muslim people from abuse ends up stifling debate about almost anything connected to Islam”.

That might sound far-fetched, but consider the following example of ‘Islamophobia’ offered up by the APPG: “Accusing Muslim citizens of being more loyal to the Ummah or their countries of origin, or to the alleged priorities of Muslims worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

But at what point does an accusation become a legitimate empirical observation? After all, the government commissioned Casey Review of 2016 reported finding “a growing sense of grievance among sections of the Muslim population, and a stronger sense of identification with the plight of the ‘Ummah’, or global Muslim community”. Similarly, in the run-up to the 2019 general election, a Savanta-ComRes poll found more than two in five respondents believed that their co-religionists in Britain tended to be more loyal to Saudi Arabia than to the UK.

It’s true that the APPG’s definition is at the moment non-statutory. But what if the Labour Party – which has of course already adopted the APPG’s definition – forms the next government and decides to enshrine this understanding of ‘Islamophobia’ into law as part of its proposed new Race Equality Act or as part of a Hate Crime and Public Order (England and Wales) Act?

As Stephen Pollard points out for the Jewish Chronicle, the problem is not that the APPG’s definition of ‘Islamophobia’ is uniquely egregious, and that some other definition might in the future more adequately fit the bill in a pluralist liberal democracy. The fact is that this peculiar word is not accidentally, but very deliberately, unspecific about whether it refers to a religion, a belief system or its faithful adherents around the world. Its rhetorical purpose has, he says, been abundantly clear ever since it was dreamt up by Iranian mullahs in the 1970s to be analogous to xenophobia, thus rendering criticism of Islam inviolate by neatly conflating a religion – i.e., a belief system, which you can convert to, or opt out of – with a race – i.e., something biological and immutable.

We urge all our members and supporters to read Tim Dieppe’s timely essay, as well as Richard Dawkins’ Foreword. In spite of being ill-thought out and not fit for purpose, the APPG’s definition of ‘Islamophobia’ is gaining traction and is likely to become more entrenched, not less, in the near future. We all need to be prepared for this new front in the ongoing war against free speech.